Topic: Updates

Varanasi

The Dudes float into Varanasi

The team has arrived in Varanasi! Ten days and 400km after purchasing our small tin-boat, we’ve finally rowed into the holiest of Hindu cities. The ghats—steep stone steps which lead worshipers to the Gange’s waters—continue along the banks for over three miles. It’s sensory overload as we watch families burning the bodies of their deceased loved ones in public, dhobi wallas washing clothes against stones, and people performing their bathing rituals beside them. Masonry steps climb high above the commotion and disappear into a labyrinth of narrow alleys that make up one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world.

Our boat trip came abruptly to an end when we sold our boat to the first person who made an offer. We paid 5,000 rupees (100USD) and sold for it 3,500 (70USD). We all felt pretty good about the deal and quickly spent the money on a nice hotel and some cold beer to celebrate.

Beyond a couple of rashes on JJ’s and our camera-man Dave’s feet, we are in perfect health. I don’t know how I avoided the rash. Maybe it was my insistence on not touching the water and demanding to be carried to shore… Sorry fellas.

The boat was a real contrast to the rickshaw, where it felt like we were on a parade through rural India, and we were the zoo bears. On the river we experienced a peace I didn’t know was possible here. The people we encountered— fishermen, farmers, and cow herders—cared little about a few white guys in a boat.

Josh’s now calloused hands work the bamboo oars

Everything is somehow coming together; we’re following the Ganga by any means possible and seeing India as the locals do. And the reward is huge! We are seeing a side of the river that few people know. It is surprisingly meek; giving almost all of itself to the people who worship and depend on it. Between temples and holy cities its waters are pumped for irrigation, tanneries dump their toxic waste into it, and cities dispose of their garbage and untreated sewage into the river.

Amazingly, it still supports wildlife. Besides our dozens of unexpected encounters with the endangered species, the Gangetic River Dolphin, we also saw hundreds of turtles, catfish being pulled from fishermen nets, and innumerable shorebird species finding their meals along the polluted shores. I do not know how the Ganges survives, but she does. She is a god, after all. With our rowboat sold, we are back to being “tourists”. We will be moving on in a few days, but we’re not sure how. And we like it that way…

Two Tales of One River

Josh and I row through a film of pollutants.

We just rowed into Allahabad! It has been five days of unsupported travel in what is proving to be the most revealing portion of our journey.

The three of us perch awkwardly on the small deck of our 13-foot wood and sheet-metal boat. None of us are experienced rowers, and wielding our heavy bamboo oars makes us look like Wilderness-kindergartners learning the Outdoors ABC’s.

Even if we did know how to row, we’re finding that the river is extremely tricky to read. At best we’ve got 10-feet of water under our hull. If we make a wrong turn we run aground.

Our boat doesn’t draw much water—maybe 4 inches—but on day three we collided into a sand bar. We’d all hoped this wouldn’t happen; primarily on account of the excrement and industrial effluence we’d seen flow into the river. None of us had touched the water yet. I began wading through the filth, trying to free the boat. My efforts were futile: soon Josh and Dave were pulling by my side.

We saw a lone dog tugging at a small mass. I joked that we would push until the carcass. We had seen dead livestock left to rot along the shore, and using carcasses as landmarks had become a dark joke between us.


As we got closer, no one spoke. The dog was pulling on the lower torso of a human body. The skull and spinal cord were lying 10-feet downstream. It was a moment of rare somberness for our crew.

We knew we’d see things like human bodies going into this trip; putting the deceased into the Ganga is the most sacred and effective method for delivering a soul to Nirvana in the Hindu religion. Still, we weren’t ready for what we saw.

Making camp on the banks of Mother Ganga

We set up camp on a sandy plain that stretched past the horizon. The sun set slowly over the mythical Ganga and the heavens gave birth to a radiant sky full of stars.

How can one river produce such contrasting emotions? It’s a river of unmatched mysticism and beauty that also collects more pollutants than any other river on the planet. It’s a living paradox.

We still have about 200km of rowing until we reach Varanasi, and the Ganga has more to teach us, I’m sure.

The Open Boat

Shopping for the best open boat

We sold the rickshaw this morning and purchased a boat. It’s 13ft long, has a sheet-metal hull, a wooden frame, and seems to be held together by nothing more than hope and a few nails. It cost $100.00US—a good deal by any standard, but not exactly confidence inspiring.

The rickshaw went for the same price to two men we met at an open-air chai stall this morning. They pedaled up and down the street 3-times, honking the rickshaw’s little green horn and waving to the large crowd, which had gathered, like astronauts in a parade, before riding off into the smog of downtown Kanpur. It would have been harder for us to say goodbye if it hadn’t been so funny.

It’s a 400km row to Varanasi and it’s the dry season. We’ve been told that “nobody does this section of river,” several times. Our rain tarp is an orange plastic picnic table cover. If we hadn’t just pedaled a rickshaw 500km through northern India, this might have once seemed like a bad idea.

We’ll christen the new vessel at sunrise tomorrow and see if she floats.

It’s unknown when we’ll have internet access again, but we’ll give you an update as soon as we can.

Expect more from the river soon…

Realizations on a Rickshaw

I explain “why rickshaw?” to a small group of 30 men

We are in Kampur now, well past the 500-kilometer marker, and getting into the swing of life on a rickshaw. Our glorified tricycle is proving to be the ultimate tool for understanding daily life in rural India. The travel is tremendously taxing, but the insights are proving to be the butter that sweetens our roti bread.

I’ve had two main cultural realizations from my time on the “rick”:

1. Indian dudes love foreign dudes on rickshaws.

Holy Krishna! I’ve never been so aggressively admired. On a stop to buy bananas, over 70 gawking males of all ages swarmed our rickshaw, engulfing us in less than 3 minutes. It’s only men surrounding our three wheel—three-man—bike. Boys to elders, they descend upon us; many with a fixed stare otherwise reserved for watching paint dry. Others ask questions in broken English, like: “Where are you? Can you give me a dollar? I have your email? Why rickshaw? Autograph?” They follow us by foot, bike, motorcycle and whatever else might pass as a “vehicle” in India, often for several kilometers shouting “stop!”

It doesn’t help that our story has been plastered across 3 different newspapers. Reporters have stopped us almost every day of our trip. With our popularity growing, traveling is getting intense. It’s the worst in the cities. We’ve actually gotten into the habit of changing out a fresh pair of legs to “motor past the mobs,” as we say. If only we could bike faster than 12 mph.

2. Americans traveling by rickshaw is an Indian paradox.

“Why no jeep? Rickshaw is for poor,” a boy shouts as the third passenger on a moving motorcycle.

It seems most of our ubiquitous attention is due to our chosen mode of travel. Although the caste system was legally abolished in the 1960’s, the country still revolves with the ancient gears of priority over equality. There are sects who talk with the gods and sects who talk with the dead.

Americans traveling by rickshaw is as foreign an idea as having two kids from ranking castes swapped in a twisted remake of “Parent Trap.” It’s my hope that this is our little way of showing that anyone can do as they wish. For us, I guess that’s biking a single-speed rickshaw along The Ganges for a spell.

The Rickshaw Diaries

Josh and JJ ride through the morning fog

The crew left Haridwar three days ago after finding a hot-deal on a rickshaw. Unfortunately for us Vishal, our friend and translator, went back to Mumbai for a friend’s wedding. We miss him dearly. And, it’s not only because our collective knowledge of Hindi barely allows us to obtain water, food, and shelter.

Now we are in Moradabad; 159km from where we started rickshaw-ing. As a rolling-unit, we weigh roughly 700lbs (3 backpacks, our camera gear, 3 six-foot-plus Caucasian males, and a baby-blue steel-frame single-speed rickshaw which none of us can lift on our own.) Our average speed is 7.7km per hour. We have to push it up even the slightest incline, and we switch out the poor soul who’s pedaling every 2 hours.

The Ride So Far:

Day 1)

We inadvertently spend our first night camped-out in the jungle after getting lost 26km from Haridwar. “I wish I knew how to ask if this is a safe place to camp,” JJ says. Josh replies, “There’s nobody here to ask.” None of us sleep.

Day 2)

We find ourselves on page 7 of a local Hindi newspaper. We assume it’s about our rickshaw trip across Uttar Pradesh, but none of us know Sanskrit, so it’s hard to say for sure. “Any press is good press,” I say.

Day 3) We experience our first flat tire. Over 40 Indians stop to help. “You always get help in India,” JJ observed. “Whether you want it or not.” Twice, oncoming buses run me off the road.

Day 4)

We’ll see…

Next photo we’re hoping for the front page:)

A Blessing From the Gods

The team questions the Brahman’s intentions for holding a ceremony.

Either we’ve received blessing from the gods or we’ve just been married in a traditional Hindu ceremony. We’re not sure yet, but we’re told the paperwork is in the mail. Stay tuned.

It’s been nearly three weeks in India, and we’ve followed mother Ganga just a fraction of her length. We’re nearly 125-miles along on this 1,500-mile journey. From her glacial source, we’ve followed her precipitous drop from the Himalayas, and are now settling into the Indian plains. Our constitution is unyielding; though our immune system’s have been attacked several times. To date we’ve suffered 2 bouts with Gastro-intestinal distress, 4 cases of altitude sickness, 2 common colds, 1 sinus infection, and more smiles than there are gods in this beautiful country.

We’re thinking about doing something really crazy next—perhaps a cycle rickshaw…

Working on my health, I successfully complete a Yogi nasal purification.

The Dudes Do Yoga

Chandrakant Yogi helps JJ and Josh find their third eye

Rishikesh: Our guidebook tells us “It’s the Yoga capital of the world.” It looks that way too. Nearly every building in town offers courses in Yoga, massage therapy, herbal healing—any type of new age medicine you can imagine. Walk into any restaurant, and you’ll see the place filled with bohemian youth sipping pressed juice or drinking lattes.

Rishikesh is not like the India we’ve seen so far, and I like it!The Beatles came here in the 60’s finding inspiration for their famous White Album, and people still flock here seeking enlightenment.

“Yoga is for everyone,” Our instructor, Chandrakant Yogi tells us on the rooftop of an ashram overlooking the river. “There are 88 different styles.” JJ and I signed up for private instruction earlier that day. It’s my first session, but I’ve always thought I stretched with moves inspired by this body and mind philosophy. The first five minutes have got us sweating, and we’re still just warming up. The sun is setting over the Ganges River. It feels great!

We told our instructor that we’re naïve in the ways of Yoga, and we’re looking for an introduction, but if he feels inspired, to go ahead and lay some big moves on us. He does lay some big moves on us, but not until the end; like balancing on his hands with arms locked between his legs. A lot of the poses are named after animals, like the “Crow” pose, where we walk around on our toes while our butts or resting on our heels. Things shift in difficulty as soon as he takes on the “Lotus” position. Tucking our feet on the top of our thighs, near the crotch, is beyond JJ and I, but it’s interesting to see what our Yogi can do, and where nearly a decade of practice can lead. He practices “7hrs a day, everyday,” he says. When we asked him what his profession was, he tells us, “Astrology is my profession and Yoga is life.”

Taking the Plunge

Josh takes a dip in the glacial source of The Ganges

The mountain village of Gangotri was empty when we arrived. There was a small handwritten note taped to the wall of the Indian Forestry Office, which read “No Permits.” The next bus or taxi scheduled to either arrive or depart wasn’t until the following spring. Uttarkashi, the nearest town, was 100 kilometers away, across the heart of the Himalayas. Our Lonely Planet guidebook, which had claimed the trail to the Gamukh Glacier was open until the end of November, had proved to be decidedly and quite noticeably wrong.

“We might not make it to the source after all, guys” JJ aptly observed.

After a series of negotiations and bribes involving various forestry officers, a thoroughly inept mountain guide, and a shady-looking hotel owner who kindly was willing to give us a Jeep ride back to Uttarkashi for only 10-times the normal cost—we had our permits.

“We’ll make it by hook or by crook,” Vishal kept saying. We needed to both hook and crook.

Our “guide,” for lack of a better term, carried nothing and talked on his cell-phone for most of the trek, until he lost service; then he wandered off by himself. His “job,” as it were, was to make sure we came down the next day. Not that the hike was particularly arduous, but rather because the forestry officer wanted to leave the next day, and the previous American couple who had done the trek had taken over a week to complete the 36 kilometer out-and-back hike. For this service, we paid him $1,200 rupees a day.

JJ suffers from acute altitude sickness

All of the team got altitude sickness. It tends to happen when one travels from sea-level to 13,000 ft. in 48 hours, but we were on a tight schedule, and dealt with the discomfort as best we could. Josh and I woke up with splitting headaches at the ashram 4km below the glacier. JJ had a migraine and felt “like shit,” as he told us; and Vishal—well, Vishal only made it to the ashram after taking a long nap, and stopping to rest every 100 meters. He made the call not to continue up to the toe of the glacier with us the next day.

It was a clear, cold morning when Josh, JJ, and myself finally made it to the source of the Ganges River. The air temperature wasn’t more than 35 degrees F. and the only reason the river itself was not completely frozen was because it was moving rapidly downhill. We all still had headaches, and I could hear JJ occasionally moaning to himself “Oh, God…” That’s when we stripped down to our boxers and jumped in.

We made a friend on the trail; a British-Egyptian named Kareem. He had also negotiated his way into a last-minute permit, and decided to jump in with us too. Check out the video below.

It’s all downhill from here, right?

Finding the Source

Nearly three weeks into the trip and we’ve finally started. The team made it to the source of The Gagnes River. Plane, train, and automobile wasn’t enough, we also had to hike, bribe, and barter—even get a little altitude sickness. 25 hours in a plane from Alaska to Mumbai, 24 hours in a train from Mumbai to Delhi, 24 hours in a kidney-bruising car ride from Delhi to Ganogtri, and an 18 kilometer hike reaching an altitude of about 13,000 feet, followed by a brisk jump in the river, where it melts from the Gamukh Glacier. All this and we barely made it…

14 hours into the train ride to Delhi, Josh and JJ need some air.

A long winding drive up the foothills of the Himalayas.

JJ pays homage to mother Ganga after taking a dip in her icy waters.

Tense Threads

“I think I am just going to go with a button-up shirt,” JJ says, as the four members of our team stood awkwardly in a clothing store no bigger than a compact-only parking space. Josh’s jaw dropped. “WHAT!?” His tone suggested JJ had committed some horrific social faux pas—on par with shoving somebody’s grandmother down the stairs, perhaps. “Okay,” Vishal says.

This was two days ago. We were dress-clothes shopping for the engagement ceremony that Vishal’s friends had invited us to. We had only brought along nylon hiking pants and a few button-ups to India. Not exactly appropriate attire for any sort of ceremony.

Vishal had suggested we purchase kurtas—the traditional Indian men’s formalwear— a combination of pajama pants and a long poncho-like shirt. Josh and I thought it was a good idea. JJ, for a reason unbeknownst to us, was uncertain. We decided to go buy them anyway.

All eyes inside and outside of the small shop were on us. ” We walked all the way here to buy kurtas,” Josh says, sounding like a high-pressured, but small burst of steam coming from an angry tea-pot. “And now you’re NOT going to get one!” He rattled a little. (In Josh’s defense: the walk to the shop had consisted of roughly 30-min of dodging motorized rickshaws, taxis, rogue cows, buses, carts, kids, and large holes in the street we could not see the bottom of). We moved the brewing argument outside, to the more crowded and chaotic street.

“I just want to wear what I have,” JJ snapped back. “We wouldn’t wear Native American Head-dresses to a powwow back in the states. Why would we wear kurtas here?”

His reasoning made sense, but we were already at the store, and I still had not really come to terms with the fact that we are arguing about our clothes.

“It’s okay,” Vishal says. “You can wear whatever you want, so long as you are comfortable.”

“I think you’re being very rude,” Josh told JJ.

It went on like this for some time, until Vishal assured us that, whatever we decided, it would be “okay.”—so long as we decided soon.

JJ bought his kurta, and Vishal was right. Everyone at the ceremony just wanted us to feel welcomed and comfortable, if not overfed. It wasn’t until halfway through the ceremony that we realized we were the only ones wearing kurtas. All the men were wearing button-up shirts, and Vishal was wearing hiking boots and blue jeans.